Stephen Hutchings

Stephen Hutchings

Professor of Russian Studies, The University of Manchester (Principal Investigator)

Cultural diplomacy’s relationship with language seems on the face of it to be readily apparent and unproblematic. Cultural diplomacy strategies invariably include a strong emphasis on teaching the relevant country’s main language to target audiences; it is central, for example, to the missions of both the British Council and China’s Confucius Institutes. According to conventional wisdom, knowledge of such a language offers those who learn it access to the cultural capital the country which is providing the training invests in them. Cultural diplomacy is therefore conceived as a transactional process: the successful projection of a country’s culture and values gives it ‘soft power’ (the broader concept with which cultural diplomacy is often confused) over that strategy’s recipients.[1]  Those recipients gain the reciprocal benefits bestowed by mastery of the transmitting country’s language which, in a ‘virtuous spiral’, further consolidates audience approval of the transmitted values and of the image projected by the country. Language, moreover, is key to identity; by learning another state’s main language, we are assured, we begin to ‘see the world’ from its viewpoint, and better appreciate its culture, its internal politics and its stances on external affairs – an attitude dating back to 19th century assumptions that languages reflect the psychological make-up of the nations they are linked to. Interestingly, however, in English, the contemporary terms ‘nation’ and ‘state’ are confused in popular usage far more than in, say Russian, intensifying problems that apply less to other languages. In this blog, I want to further complicate the received understanding of language’s place within cultural diplomacy and in so doing propose a different, humanities-led approach to soft power – a topic often considered the province of international relations specialists. This approach aligns with recent calls for new forms of patriotism with which to combat the continuing march of populist nationalisms across much of the Western world.

First, it is worth noting that the benefits enumerated above are far from guaranteed. Language boundaries, as clarified above, do not coincide with those of nation states (ironically, certain perceptive 19th century thinkers clearly recognized this), meaning that knowledge of a country’s main language not only makes available its official canon, it also gives those who learn it access to the ‘heresies’ of multiple non-state actors who reject national policies or beliefs. Languages designated as ‘national’ are rarely exclusive to the country in question. To be sure, this represents an opportunity for ex-imperial homelands to extend their influence, which is why Britain, France and Russia invest heavily in promoting themselves to the Commonwealth, the Francophone countries of Africa, and the post-Soviet Russophone community respectively. However, precisely because of its geopolitical diffusion, language may lose its unique association with its assumed country of origin and become a tool of postcolonial rebellion. For non-state artistic actors like the Belarus Free Theatre (BFT), Russian is a shared medium through which to create a transnational community of resistance to the regimes of Putin and Lukashenko (Belarus’s president). A more extreme example is when organisations like ISIS deploy language (primarily Arabic – a ‘universalizing’ language detached from specific nations or states) within influencing strategies designed to build support for anti-state violence. Just as ‘soft power’ blurs into ‘propaganda’, so neither language nor cultural diplomacy are the exclusive domain of nation states.

Not infrequently, moreover, the position of official state languages is threatened by rival claimants (Welsh’s still precarious position in English-dominated Wales, and that of English with respect to Spanish’s growing strength in the US), further undermining both the mythical one-to-one correspondence of nation to language, and cultural diplomacy missions promoting one language, or a single national identity. As the examples attest, cultural diplomacy practice often coincides with imperial power (past and present). Whether through old colonial ties, or their positions as attractive destinations for migrants, these centres of former imperial states are now, however, unmistakably multilingual. In official discourse, this can be perceived as a threat to societal cohesion and to the main language with which migrants are exhorted to replace their native tongues (UK governments of different political colours issue statements to this effect with depressing regularity). Conversely, post-colonial nation-states begin limiting the status of the language of their former imperial masters (especially the countries of the former USSR). Unofficial channels, by contrast, are more prone to acknowledge the linguistic diversity brought by migration as an enrichment of the receiving nation’s identity, and an asset that we ‘want other countries to want’, to quote from Joseph Nye’s foundational account of soft power. Language difference can even provide the focus for forms of global communion which evade nations altogether (translation organizations dedicated to facilitating ties between citizen activists). This not only raises questions over whether cultural diplomacy missions are best assigned to state, sub-state or non-state actors. It also deepens reflection on what exactly cultural diplomacy is: an activity conducted by or on behalf of states; a form of nation building beyond national borders which may contradict state interests; or a still more complex mode of inter-cultural exchange in which nations and states are displaced by smaller (or larger) communities of all varieties seeking to promote themselves to other groups, or to consolidate their own identities?

Finally, even proponents of cultural diplomacy in its conventional understanding  must confront the fact that the very universality of languages like English which makes them such a powerful soft power tool diminishes the value attached to language learning, and linguistic difference, within the states in which they prevail. This, in turn, has negative consequences for diplomats, de-sensitizing them to how their strategies play out with target audiences, depriving them of the steady supply of homegrown linguists needed to evaluate those strategies, and of full appreciation of the contextual factors which enables them to calibrate for local conditions.

What all this adds up to is the sense of a quite striking oxymoron at the heart of the very terms ‘soft power’ and ‘cultural diplomacy’. When state ‘power’ is translated into ‘culture’ – the famed impartiality of the BBC World Service, the Royal Opera’s overseas performances, or the latest Brit-art sensation to take the world by storm – any gains secured in terms of covert legitimation are attenuated by a corresponding loss in clarity and effectiveness. It is the contradictions and pitfalls surrounding language teaching as a cultural diplomacy tool which bring this attenuation into focus. However, it is also the related issues around which language to teach – and around language and linguistic diversity more generally – which reveal the untapped potential that a new approach to cultural diplomacy might bring. This approach entails states conceding that they are not their own best advocates and that, in delegating cultural diplomacy to other actors (broadcasters; arts institutions, for example), the message they wish to convey may be distorted or subverted; linguistic meaning, as humanities scholars know, is contingent on the specific contexts of its performance and cannot be pre-determined. It means recognizing that, if it is not aspiring to transcend locality altogether, culture tends to cleave to nations rather than to states, and that respective sets of interests rarely coincide. Most riskily of all, it involves supporting forms of cross-linguistic and cross-cultural exchange which bypass or even negate the nation state.

The paradox here is that, by accepting all these tensions and risks, and by openly embracing the corresponding ‘softening’, or even ‘dissolution’ of their power, states might ultimately enhance rather than damage their legitimacy. Could such a paradox inform articulations of the elusive ‘progressive patriotism’ that liberal thinkers are beginning to seek as an antidote to the recent spread of populist nationalisms reliant on certitude about the identity and supremacy of ‘one’s own’, and xenophobic fear of ‘the other’? We should, of course, as the Russian case demonstrates, be aware that liberal patriotism can acquire disturbing imperial undertones, reconfirming both the dangers of linguistic essentialism, and the need for progressive patriots to welcome free debate about the dark aspects of colonial pasts. However, given people’s obdurate refusal to abandon perceptions of a world divided into nations  in the face of the perceived threats posed by rampant globalisation, might it be better to offer a version of love for one’s country which recognises the continuing power that nations exert over the imagination but which absorbs and celebrates the benefits that derive from globalisation, including the linguistic and cultural diversity that comes with accelerating migration trends? This would be a form of patriotism which not only accepts the internal differences that result from a country’s history – ethnic, cultural, linguistic, political – but also sees its future destiny as realised through its open-ness to external otherness of all kinds. It would be a patriotism which knows that it is never equivalent to itself, always shifting, fragmenting and reforming anew by reaching outwards in sympathy towards what it knows it is not. To quote the Russian philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘I create myself by means of a quest. I go out into the world in order to come back with a self … there is no love in isolation’. It would be a patriotism to the drawing of whose contours, linguists, diplomats and others could contribute in a single collaborative effort of uncertain outcome but rich rewards.

[1] Kings College London has recently issued a report in which the distinction is clearly articulated

I would also like to thank Vera Tolz and Andy Byford for their excellent comments on earlier versions of this piece